How to build the habits you want

Habits are devious creatures, aren’t they? They live in our mind, feed off of our energy, and they breed. Good habits become stronger and make you better. This is good, obviously.

Habit is a cable; we weave a thread each day, and at last we cannot break it. – Horace Mann

The problem is that bad habits also reinforce themselves, making us weaker. I’m sure we all have a bad habit or two. Yeah, “nobody is perfect” and all that. The good and the bad habits sit on either side of the scales, and we often try not to look whether the scale is tipping in our favor. But what if we could put a finger on the good side, gently tipping it to our advantage? We can do that!

The trick is to nurture the good habits and kill off the bad ones. It’s part of human nature to strive to improve. All it takes is a bit of self-awareness and some willpower. And there lies the biggest hurdle, because it’s so easy to come up with excuses. “I’m busy. This other thing is really urgent. I don’t feel like it. I’m tired. It doesn’t sound fun.”

Some people are naturally gifted with a strong sense of self-discipline. The rest of us could use a little help, a little nudge here and there, to remind us of what we really ought to do now. Often it only takes a little friendly reminder or a mental nudge of our conscience to sway us into action. “Just this one little step. Nothing more. Just once. Come on.”

For those of us with less self-discipline, there’s a trick known as the Seinfeld calendar, also expressed as no more zero days. (Seriously, go read that awesome post!) It’s the basic idea that you must do one thing every day in order to reach your goal. There’s no excuse for skipping a day; aim for a long, unbroken streak of “non-zero days”.

Self-discipline may be my biggest challenge, at least, so I’m usually thankful for receiving nudge. I’ve got a little app on my phone that prods me about certain things at certain times. I only had very few items, like these:

  • Don’t yell at the kids
    At the end of each day, I reflected on whether I had been a “positive parent” (as measured by my own standards). Mostly yes, sometimes no. After a while, this idea buried itself in the back of my head and helped me react better during the day when a tricky situation arose. I found that my number of no‘s decreased!
  • Fitness
    Before going to bed, I have a short fitness routine. It only takes a few minutes but it’s not really something I look forward to when I’m already tired. It’s tempting to skip it unless I’m nudged. While using the app to remind me, I found that I barely missed any days. Then recently I wiped my phone and didn’t reinstall that app – and suddenly I stopped doing the workouts! So now I’m using the app again, and I’m doing the workouts again, and I feel better again.

In both cases, the simple act of tracking my non-zero days helped me improve; my habits became stronger. This is the power of actively nurturing good habits. (As for the fitness habit, I guess it hadn’t grown strong enough to stand on its own. That’s why I track it again now.)

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristoteles


The Android app “Rewire” strikes just the right balance for me. It’s not too naggy but just naggy enough to convince me to spend a few minutes on my evening workout. And it all works simply by showing me how many non-zero days I’ve had. (I’m not receiving anything in return for this link – I’m sharing it because I genuinely like it.)

Here are the introductory steps in the app. They neatly summarize what it’s all about:

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For each habit I want to track, I can also (optionally) set a reminder. This is a very convenient combination of nudging me and allowing me to record the day:

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This is just the kind of app I love. It’s minimal, elegant, and only does one very specific thing – and it does it exceedingly well!

Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going. – Jim Ryun

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